Today I will veer away from politics, to the extent that is ever possible, and write about two unrelated topics: the mode of address in Hungarian and food quality. For a long time I have found the first topic amusing; the second, irritating. The inspiration to write about them came from two opinion pieces, both in Magyar Nemzet.
Let’s start with the amusing one. I have been noticing more and more frequently that in radio and television interviews the interviewer and the interviewee can’t decide whether they are on formal or informal terms. They switch back and forth with abandon. Then there are the interviews that begin with a lengthy explanation about the long-standing friendship between the two individuals that can justify the use of the informal. There is also the accepted practice that journalists always use the informal among themselves. This is observed even if the person in question was once a government minister but for a short time worked as a journalist. The person I’m thinking of in this particular instance is Gábor Kuncze. Huge confusion reigns in Hungarian sociolinguistics.
Obviously, I am not the only one who is bewildered by all this. In a recent Magyar Nemzet opinion piece the author states that “sooner or later the nation must make a deliberate decision whether it maintains the formal mode of address or it introduces a language reform as the Swedes have done.” The fact is that the informal is spreading in Hungarian with incredible speed, but the author is wrong in thinking that it greatly accelerated only after 1990. Already in the 1950s university students, regardless of sex, automatically used the informal. The habit was then expanded to office workers, teachers, doctors, and so on and so forth. By now total strangers use the informal in the most unusual circumstances. I was somewhat taken aback when a young relative of mine during a business call used the informal with a total stranger on the other end of the line. Or, here is a bizarre encounter from a few days ago. Zoltán Szabó, the respected editor of Index, had an unfortunate encounter with a security guard at a KFC. The KFC employee without a second thought called the bespectacled middle-aged Szabó “te.” Szabó also called the security guard “te.” In no time the security guard smashed Szabó in the face, presumably not because of a linguistic faux pas.
My other subject of the day is one that irritates me: the claim that Hungarian agricultural products, without exception, are vastly superior to anything produced elsewhere. To question this categorical statement is considered outright sinful. That’s why I was pleasantly surprised by another Magyar Nemzet opinion piece titled “It would be quite enough if it were good.” To understand the title, one ought to know that not long ago there was a large agricultural exhibit, which was accompanied by a tsunami of ads about “the best of Hungarian soil.” The author writes that, for patriotic reasons, he bought only Hungarian products for years, but now he feels cheated because, as anyone can tell, Austrian or German yogurt, butter, cheese, and milk are better than their Hungarian counterparts. The campaign waged by the ministry of agriculture, which cost 1.85 billion forints, will not make Hungarian agricultural products better.
Three weeks later Zsolt Balásy, an analyst at MKB Bank, wrote an article with the startling title “Don’t buy domestic products: Winners and losers of globalization.” What should matter, he argues, is the price-value relationship and not where something was produced. Balásy then moves on to a discussion of watermelon. Anyone who follows the seasons in Hungary knows that there comes a time when the most important topic everywhere is the price and quality of watermelon. At the beginning of the article Balásy relates his conversation with a greengrocer at a market in Budapest who tells him that the watermelon he is selling is “not like the 100 ft. Hungarian one.” It is better because this watermelon comes from Greece. (In Hungarian, watermelon is called Greek melon.) For part of watermelon season the only Hungarian watermelon available is of lower quality because the best watermelons are exported, where they compete successfully. Protectionism necessarily lowers quality everywhere.
On the internet, I encountered a website called gyakorikérdések.hu where someone poses a question and waits for answers or comments. One of the questions was: “Why is there the perception that Hungarian products are the best and most delicious?” The answers supported my contention that this belief is simply a popular myth based on inappropriate comparisons. As Balásy said, one should not compare a delicious Hungarian peach to a watery Italian one because then there is no question that the Hungarian peach will be the winner. Some of the commenters attested to the fact that in many cases the foreign products are better than the domestic ones. This is especially true of dairy products. Judging from the comments, food nationalism no longer works, but the Hungarian government hasn’t recognized that fact yet.